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High Profile: Jeffrey Nordling

SMU grad, former jock takes a turn on the tube as
a (sort of) lovable ne'er-do-well

By Michael Granberry --
From the pages of his past, drama teacher Jack Clay remembers Jeffrey Nordling as a "tall, handsome, manly actor not unlike Gary Cooper." He had a natural gift for "stage fighting" and the look of someone who could have been a professional athlete.

"He was very skilled at stage fighting," says Mr. Clay, a mentor of Mr. Nordling's during the time this athlete-turned-actor was pursuing a master of fine arts degree, which he earned from Meadows School of the Arts in 1987.

Jeffrey Nordling's growth at SMU was "an aesthetic growth, an artistic growth," says Jack Clay, a former teacher of Mr. Nordling's. "He's a real athlete," says Mr. Clay, "so he took to that like a duck to water."

But there was a whole lot more to this former soccer player than choreographed stage fights. Mr. Clay remembers a budding actor "with a great deal of substance," so it's no surprise to him that his former protégé has accomplished – even in the glare of network television – what might have been unattainable in the hands of a lesser talent.

With dignity, vulnerability and shades of gray, this 39-year-old actor has managed to humanize Jake Manning, a debt-ridden womanizer and one of four characters at the center of ABC's critically acclaimed Once and Again. Its cast learned only Monday that it has just been renewed for a third season. (The show has done much better with critics than it has in the Nielsen ratings.)

Mr. Nordling's Jake is what some would call a cad. He's also the ex-husband of Lily, played by Sela Ward, who won an Emmy last year for best actress in a television drama. Once and Again focuses on four divorced adults and the children whose lives have been thrown into disarray by the fate their parents have given them. It also deals with "blended" families and has tackled anorexia, drug addiction and a hostage action that put Mr. Nordling at center stage.

'He's the hero'

But be careful what you say about Jake around Mr. Nordling. He's very protective.

"I love Jake. Hey, man, he's the hero," says the actor, who, unlike Jake, is happily married. He and his wife, actress Francia DiMase, live in a Los Angeles-area suburb with their 5-year-old twins, Eloise and Miranda. These days, he also looks different from Jake. During the show's hiatus, he's sporting a goatee and a much scruffier look.

"I love that he continues so hard to try to make things right," says Mr. Nordling, who is "always kind of taken aback when people despise Jake. I mean, God forbid that anything should happen to Saint Lily," he adds sarcastically, referring to Jake's ex, who ended the marriage rather than risk being cheated on any further. Jake is also a bit of walking time bomb with a checkbook.


Date and place of birth: March 11, 1962, Ridgewood, N.J.
Occupation: Actor
Favorite music: Many kinds – jazz, African pop, classical, "world"
Favorite movie(s): Dead Man, Brazil, The 400 Blows, An Angel at My Table, Deliverance, Tender Mercies
Favorite book(s): Second Coming by Walker Percy, Franny and Zooey
My ideal vacation: On a Pacific island with absolutely nothing to do
My last meal would be: A Baja Fresh chicken burrito
My worst habit is: TV sports
Behind my back, people say: Hmm, he seems so much more handsome on TV.
Guests at my fantasy dinner party: Shakespeare and all my actor friends
My happiest day: Wedding day
My epitaph should read: Man, he almost made the light.
Favorite time of day: Tee time
The actress I have a crush on: My wife ... (right, honey?)
I'm happiest when: I'm with my family.
If I could change one thing about myself, it would be: Keeping priorities.
I regret: Too many things
Nobody knows I: Am really Joan of Arc reincarnated.

As Mr. Nordling sees it, "Jake has some flaws that keep getting in his way. There's a line of his I love: 'I may be jinxed, but I'm not stupid.' I love the fact that he perseveres and loves his kids the way he does."

In one memorable episode, Jake's ill-fated restaurant falls hostage to a disgruntled busboy, who holds at gunpoint Jake, his teenage daughter Grace and a roomful of terrified diners. Jake secures everyone's release by reaching out to the busboy, who, in the end, harms only himself.

"Jake put it on the line for everyone else, and really, that's something Jake would do," says Mr. Nordling. "He got himself totally on the side of Benny [the busboy]. He wanted to take the kid under his wing. He wanted to make it right. That's Jake's gift. He understands how to talk to people. He's a great talker, and in that scene, he loses his temper at just the right moment. He says, 'Forget it, I'm done with this,' which was Jake's special way of putting the young man completely on the defensive. I mean, hey, Rick wouldn't have done that."

And then he laughs. Rick is the male lead of Once and Again, played by Billy Campbell as a character quite different from Jake. Mr. Nordling auditioned for both roles before being chosen as Jake.

"It's a wonderful group of people," he says of the cast, which also includes four of the best young actors ever seen on television. "There's not a bad apple in the bunch."

At the heart of the series is Sela Ward, whom Mr. Nordling says is "as wonderfully talented as she is beautiful."

He credits much of the show's success to its elegant, sophisticated writing and to executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who also created thirtysomething, a hit during the 1980s and a kind of spiritual forebear to Once and Again. Mr. Zwick and Mr. Herskovitz also produced the Oscar-winning Traffic, about America's often-futile attempts to cope with drugs.


A native of New Jersey, Mr. Nordling is the son of a Wall Street investor who often worried that he would end up supporting his son, should he insist on a career in the arts. (Landing a role on a network series has a way of soothing any parent's financial fears.) But the arts would have come naturally, since Mr. Nordling's mom is soprano Lois Nordling, an opera singer whose voice carried her on tours throughout the United States and Europe during his boyhood.

Unlike the kids on Once and Again, he wasn't fully committed to acting as a teenager. Art school was a possibility, but so was athletics. He excelled in high school soccer in Washington Township, N.J., and at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he obtained his undergraduate degree and decided to dive into acting as a career.

That led him to SMU, which, at the time, had aligned itself with an audition program run by the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs. It distinguished SMU as one of the best in the country, along with nine other schools, including Yale, Juilliard and the University of California at San Diego.

"I chose SMU in many ways because of Jack Clay," Mr. Nordling says.

"At the time, the word among young actors was that Juilliard was living on reputation and that SMU kind of had the goods."

Mr. Nordling speaks highly of his time there, praising two teachers in particular. (Both have since left SMU.) From Margaret "Peggy" Loft, he learned "a technical use of language" and from Mr. Clay he developed "a love of language. And believe me, both continue to serve me every day I go to work."

Mr. Clay, now retired and living in Seattle, lists Mr. Nordling as among the finest talent ever produced at Meadows, which, during the 1970s and 1980s, turned out an elite corps of graduates. Alumni from that era include actors Dylan Baker, Powers Boothe, Patricia Richardson, Kathy Bates and Regina Taylor and playwrights Jack Heifner and Beth Henley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart.

"A golden age," says Mr. Clay, who came to regard Mr. Nordling as a friend. He says no one was more supportive when Mr. Clay lost his wife in 1991 and his son two years ago.

"After my wife died, he sent me a paperback copy of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces," says Mr. Clay. "He thought it would cheer me up. It was such a dear thing to do."

Mr. Nordling's growth at SMU was largely "an aesthetic growth, an artistic growth," says Mr. Clay, who remembers him in a scene from George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart in which he "sat on a chaise longue and simply talked. He discovered for the first time how to really speak on stage, eloquently and elegantly. And for someone who had always seen himself as a jock, this was a real revelation to Jeff."

Confidence builder

Mr. Nordling says the SMU experience gave him a confidence that sustained him during his early days in New York and Hollywood. He played Posthumus in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Cymbeline , starring opposite Joan Cusack. He also played Don Juan of Seville after a stint with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

His TV and film career includes the title role in Shooter, a pilot that focused on the life of a combat photographer during the Vietnam War. He filmed it in 1988 and "it wasn't picked up, but I lived off the money for a year."

Mr. Clay says his former student has "natural acting talent" to go with the fact that "he's a born leading man. He has this quality about him that's wonderfully American and romantic."

As a result, his TV-movie career has paired him with Valerie Bertinelli in Personally Yours; with Sharon Lawrence in Blue Moon; and with Mary-Louise Parker in Saint Maybe, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation based on an Anne Tyler novel.

But one of his more memorable performances was that of Gaetan Dugas, who knowingly infected scores of fellow homosexuals with HIV in the HBO movie, And the Band Played On.

Before all that, he loved his time in Dallas, he says, spending a fruitful three years combing the streets of Deep Ellum. For a while, he even dated a young singer named Edie Brickell, who was making her mark in local clubs.

"Now she's married to some loser," he says, once and again aiming his Jake-like sarcasm, this time at Ms. Brickell's husband, legendary songwriter Paul Simon.

After the appropriate pause, he laughs, saying SMU was also good for honing humor with an edge, in a never-ending effort to poke fun at oneself.

This is, after all, one of Jake's more endearing virtues.

"I mean, really," Mr. Nordling says, "Jake is a great guy. How could anyone not see him that way? You've just got to love him. I know I do."__The Dallas Morning News (May 20, 2001)